Dubai: “Daddy, we want puffs and pizza! Puffs and pizza!” yelled two little girls after art class. ‘Rohini teacher’, who stayed near a grocery store in Rolla, Bur Dubai, had let my sister and me leave earlier than usual.
Our house was a 10-minute walk away, but my father took it upon himself to pick us up and drop us off anywhere we went. On our way back, we’d always take a bylane to get to the main road. At the end of that alleyway was my beloved bakery – Bakewell, which still continues to stand exactly where I last saw it (11 years ago).
While my dad was quite good at tuning out the racket we made those days, he did listen to the clambering from time to time when it came to certain things such as food.
I still remember stepping into the bakery, with a ‘chacha’ sitting behind the counter asking us: “Beta, kya chahiye aaj? (What do you want today, dear?)”
And we’d tell our father what we wanted like the ‘shy’ little girls we were – who then communicated that to the elderly man seated behind the counter.
We’d come out with two boxes – one with mini cheese pizza and the other with freshly baked chicken puffs.
Which got me thinking… if nostalgia were a food item, the mini cheese pizza would be it.
But like me, there are quite a few UAE kids who’ve shared the same eternal love with a different story, and even a different bakery.
Why is it so popular?
I personally asked my friends what they thought about it on our WhatsApp group, and all I got were hearts and drool emoticons… and an upcoming plan to meet up at Caesar’s to eat it soon. But when they asked their friends about it, a flood of emotion is what I received!
...reminds me of home and all the good times!
For Dubai-based 27-year-old Shradha Dinesh, who’s working in Germany, she said: “Every time I come to Dubai, I have to buy a box of these. It tastes like lunch breaks in school, like birthday parties that your parents throw for you as a kid, like a midnight snack when everyone is asleep, like my entire childhood and now reminds me of home and all the good times!”
Navya PC, a 26-year-old lecturer at a Dubai-based University hasn’t eaten it in recent times, but she does highlight that the convenient snack often brings its dose of nostalgia: “I haven’t eaten them in years actually. But I guess people who do have and love them, it’s either out of nostalgia of like school cafeteria food or because it’s like a convenient on-the-go for a quick picnic or road trip.”
We’ve eaten a lot of things so far, but the one thing we’ll never forget the taste of is the mini cheese pizza
On the other hand, for Dubai-based brothers Sandesh, 25 years, and Vipul Varghese, 24 years, respectively – the mini cheese pizza in itself is an “emotion” as they call it: “I’ve eaten a lot of things so far, but the one thing I’ll never forget the taste of is the mini cheese pizza," said Vipul.
If I really could describe it… they are little bites of heaven
"It’s been our childhood, our teenage years and continues to be the one go-to dish if I’m in the mood for something small yet delicious. If I really could describe it… they are little bites of heaven!” added Sandesh.
Steni Thomas, a 24-year-old Dubai-based software engineer, “I just had it few months ago from Caesar's just for memories sake, and it got me super nostalgic of the break times we had in school. Although it didn’t taste like it used to when we were kids, I still like to try it once a while and remember the excitement we had during our run to the canteen to get a load of yummy food for just Dh1. It's comfort food, although I don't see it around much these days, except at few places.”
But while most of the mini cheese’s popularity stems from Indian expatriate children who grew up in the UAE, this snack is not restricted to the community.
Moajanat, fatayer and Lebanese mini pizza
The Arabic pastry ‘fatayer’ is another variation of the mini cheese pizza. Of course, the ingredients are quite different, but the concept is similar.
For someone who’s grown up eating the fatayer, 30-year-old secondary school teacher Layal Shnaneh calls herself a turophile (a person who fancies cheese a lot) and reminisces on her personal liking for fatayer: “As someone who lives for the endorphins that come from the richness of cheese, I consciously and passionately appreciate any dish that has cheese. As an Arab cheese lover, cheese fatayer is the staple breakfast dish that satisfies my cravings because its pastry is crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, but more importantly, it engulfs a heart-warming amount of cheese be it Akkawi or Kashkawan. Cheese fatayer is my go to snack because its saltiness curbs my unhealthy urges for salt chips.
“Unfortunately, as expats, we no longer have the luxury of eating cheese fatayer made by our parents, and so we have not yet attempted cheese fatayer in the UAE, as there are so many different types that do not foster the Levantine taste that we are used to. The most essential aspect of cheese fatayer is eating it on the spot so that the cheese oozes out of the fresh pastry, unfortunately with delivery that same experience would not be fulfilled.
“As for the ‘mini cheese pizza’, we called it moajanat, which was a party snack or a dinner snack especially when you have people over,” said Shnaneh.
Thirty eight-year-old Dubai-based public relations professional Maria Al Touq is an ardent fan of the cheese fatayer, which played a huge role in her childhood: “It [fatayer] reminds me of when my parents would order a quick meal when we used to have unexpected visitors at home. So I have great memories associated with friends, delicious snacks and laughter. And it helps that I love bread and cheese. The combination is amazing. Especially I always order these things when they are right out of the oven and super fresh. While I’ve had what they called the ‘mini cheese pizza’, it does resemble the Lebanese mini pizza and I absolutely love that, because literally anything bread based with cheese works for me….”
As this cross cultural appeal for mini cheese pizza and fatayer continues, we can only hope the two worlds collide and give a new tasty, gastronomical (and cheesy) experience for all!
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